Liberia: Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Shares Lessons Learned From Her 12-Year Presidency

Monrovia — Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says her 12-year leadership of Liberia and the history that preceded her regime has made her believe that the consistent application of governance can make a big difference and turn apparently hopeless cases around.

In a brief memoir first published in Daily Maverick 168, she recalled Liberia had been seriously afflicted by corruption and dependency as a result of the 14-year civil war.

"During the 12 years (2006 to 2018) of my two-term government, the economy averaged above 7% annual growth. Per capita income rose from $80 at the end of the second civil war in 2003 to $700, though the population increased by nearly 50% to just under 5 million. Life expectancy rose from 53 to 61. A once "failed state" could take over essential tasks. In the 2017 elections to succeed me, the opposition won, so Liberia could join the limited club of countries where elections produced a peaceful transfer of power," Madam Sirleaf recalled.

He ascendency to power, she remembered, did not come on silver platter, rather years of campaign and building of credibility which she believes landed her the Nobel peace prize in 2011.

Madam Sirleaf: "To get Liberia moving in the right direction took determination. I kept a whiteboard next to my desk to remind me of priorities, timelines and goals. We had to focus scant resources on things that matter. The first priority was to keep the peace after two decades of war. The second was to restore basic services. Third, we had to restore the nation's reputation and creditworthiness. Liberia was the poster child for death and destruction on every TV around the world.

"There are things I might have approached differently. The first concerns capacity. Our civil service comprised the warring factions. While some meant well, many had no qualifications. But it was difficult to get rid of them since this was their sole income. Integrity was the next challenge. I made bold statements about corruption without realizing the extent to which it had become part of the culture. This was worsened by the familiarity of our society, where people would expect things from family members."

According to her, with a country returning from war at the time, Liberians at the time had been accommodated in refugee camps where they were supplied most of their basic necessities which bred a culture of dependency.

She added: "But this dependency was not just concentrated at the lower end of the ladder. It became a way of life, more than the social sharing of any African society. This has led to unacceptably high salaries at some levels."

Madam Sirleaf stated that challenges of capacity, integrity and dependency were reflected in just about everything that she did, whether promoting the private sector, dealing with communities, or finding capable ways of applying rules and procedures.

Doing this in a democratic environment made it more difficult, she said. According to her, any attempt to develop in a faster, authoritarian way could have been a trigger for conflict.

Madam Sirleaf: "We could not suppress the freedom to get things done. It was not easy to implement a democracy in such a broken society. But democracy was driven by the people's demand. It was a demand that was welcomed from my perspective.

"I had wanted one term. But the things I wanted to complete were not finished at the end of that first term. Civil society was the key driver of democracy. The legislature was not that supportive of the democratic process as they were mainly focused on retaining their own interests. My biggest surprise was how devilish they were, my own party included."

She said, Liberia's lesson is distinct and consistency is key to recovery. She added that plans require matching resources and timelines with political will. Change is possible, even if it takes time.

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